What Sparked the L.A. Riots? A 15-Year Old Black Girl Was Killed For "Stealing" Orange Juice

Latasha Harlins

On the morning of March 16, 1991, 15-year old Latasha Harlins was killed by the owner of a convenience store in South Central Los Angeles. She had gone in to buy some orange juice, but Soon Ja Du, the Korean owner, assumed she was stealing and she shot her, even though the innocent girl had cash in her hand. This sparked the beginning of the L.A. riots.
Racial tension between Koreans and African-Americans had already been high in that community. Many Korean store-owners who had stores in Black communities had been raising their prices on their products and were not hiring Black employees.

Even worse, the LAPD had a terrible reputation with the community. In fact, from 1986 to 1990, more than 80 lawsuits had been filed against the LAPD for excessive force.

So sadly, when 15-year old Latasha walked into Du’s Empire Liquor Market, a business that already had a reputation of being disrespectful to Black customers, the tragedy that ensued really hit the tipping point.

What's especially sad, though, is that Latasha had no intention of stealing. She reportedly grabbed a bottle of orange juice, put it in her backpack, and went directly to the cashier to pay for it. After seeing this though, the owner yelled “You b****, you are trying to steal my orange juice.” Latasha immediately showed her two one-dollar bills with which she would pay, but the owner grabbed her and then shot her after Latasha managed to get away.

The reaction to her murder came quick and bitter. Local Blacks in the area began protesting outside of the store and Soon Ja Du was eventually taken into custody. The jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter and recommended the maximum prison sentence of 16 years. However, Judge Joyce Karlin, who was white, only gave her probation with 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.

Du was released; a decision that caused huge anger and discontent in the community. As a consequence, the streets erupted in protests, riots, fires, gunshots, and widespread looting.

The rioting continued for 6 days - from April 29 to May 4, 1992. More than 2,300 people were injured, 3,600 fires were set, 1,100 buildings were damaged, and the estimated cost of all of the damages combined totaled to almost $1 billion dollars.